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About the Accusation that Syrian and Russian Troops are Looting Palmyra

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Palmyra

“Syrian Troops Looting Ancient City Of Palmyra, Says Archaeologist.” So shouted the highly respected UK Guardian’s headline of June 1, 2016 on the eve of the opening day of this month’s two-day Berlin Convergence attended by more than 170 scientists, archaeologists, architects and planners. The gathering of experts was convened to discuss how best to preserve Syria’s, and our heritage, despite the five-year-old war that has killed more than 280,000 people and has also resulted in serious damage to our globally shared Cultural Heritage.

Within minutes the UK Daily Mail and AFP followed suit and ran a similar hyped and dramatic story without questioning the accuracy of the presented claims. Within hours the accusations ricocheted widely around the Internet saturating this little planet or ours.

What gave the story initial credibility was that it came from the lips of the highly respected German archeologist, Dr. Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and former President of the German Archaeological Institute.

Some excerpts from Dr. Parzinger’s media briefings in Berlin:

“Syrian regime and Russian troops are looting the ancient city of Palmyra just like the Islamic State jihadis who controlled it until March, 2016 …Their soldiers are conducting illegal excavations and are looting the UNESCO World Heritage site”

Writing in the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung, while conceding that the retaking of Palmyra was “an important victory for our cultural heritage” (Dr. Parzinger’s words), he continued: “Despite the liberation, we shouldn’t act like everything is alright now. And this victory has not made Bashar al-Assad and his backers the saviors of cultural heritage”.

The accuser continued:

“Assad’s soldiers too plundered the ruins of Palmyra before the Isis takeover, and their rockets and grenades indiscriminately pounded the antique columns and walls when this promised even the slightest military advantage.”

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The above photo taken on 6/22/2016 by this observer illustrates how during their 8 month occupation, ISIS jihadists, often high on the drug captagon would“shoot up” the ruins. Sometimes coming close to toppling some of the columns with their Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG’s). How to fix the column shown above is beyond this observer’s knowledge. ISIS also left behind much graffiti to be discussed subsequently by this witness as it offers probative insights into ISIS’ lack of knowledge about Islam.

Speaking again to media, Dr.Parzinger insisted that Syrian troops, when they are off-duty, “are conducting illegal excavations” and “have looted the UNESCO World Heritage site”.

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A Syrian government army officer guards the Temple of Bel. Palmyra’s archeological treasures area were damaged, but not decimated, as some have erroneously claimed, by Isis in October 2015. The entire area of the ruins since the liberation of Palmyra in March, 2016 has been very tightly guarded and protected by Syrian forces. It awaits restoration. My investigatory inquiries, aided by trusted friends and archeologists not involved in politics and some of whom this observer has known for four years and who are today working on the scene revealed no looting by government forces or by anyone else. Where is the proof to the contrary on which Dr. Parzsinger bases his indictment targeting Syrian and Russians soldiers? Photograph: Valery Sharifulin/Tass

So if this observer were to challenge respected archeologist Parzsinger’s indictment, and I most emphatically do, what relevant, probative, and material circumstantial evidence can I offer dear reader to carry my own burden of proof that this respected archeologist is sorely mistaken?

One argument focuses on the Syrian people’s deep connection with their land, civilization and cultural heritage and their deeply felt obligation to protect and preserve it for those who will follow them. Their progeny.

As an American who loves his country, misses it and expects to return before long, I confess that our 250 year old country has not connected with me to the same degree as 10,000 years of this cradle of civilization seems to have with its people. I sometimes feel a bit of remorse and I have occasionally contemplated whether the difference one feels among the Syria people for their past is cultural, congenital- (they somehow acquired it from their mother’s milk), or perhaps it’s genetic and imprinted over many millennia into the Syrian people. I don’t know the precise cause but it’s there and perhaps even stronger among the armed services. “We feel a duty to protect our heritage maybe more than not military citizens do”, according to a general who is in charge of protecting all ruins and also the National Museum of Palmyra. Half a dozen uniformed officers nodded in agreement with my speculations at the meeting on this question that took place at the Syria Army’s Command headquarters on 6/22/2016, barely a few hundred meters from the damaged Arc de Triomphe. My interlocutors offered several examples of how they protect the sites and why in their view it was not possible for any looting to be done these days either by soldiers or anyone else.

Backing up their testimonies in private conversations with this observer were several non-military, non-political career archeologists, some who have worked in the area for decades and a couple of whom I have known for a few years during my own work here in Syria. They explained in detail to this observer what the army has been doing since it expelled ISIS in mid-March 2016.Their work includes, but is not limited to the following:

For 30 days, accompanied by 11 explosive sniffing dogs, Syrian and Russian troops cleaned the whole cultural heritage area, which spans several acres, of more than 4000 booby trap high explosive devices.

The army also cleansed the National Museum at Palmyra of booby-traps. And they did much more at the museum. They literally swept out trash and debris from all the floors and help collect, secure and box up chips of stone from the base the 74 statues and busts whose hands and faces ISIS had chiseled off.

As the photo below illustrates the Syrian army brought in its empty ammunition crates to pack with artifacts some of which had been quickly stashed by Museum employees just as ISIS fighters started to arrive to Palmyra in 2015. Most of the hidden treasures were not discovered by ISIS and are now in safe keeping.

As there has not been any serious military threat at Palmyra since late March of 2016, the Syrian army with some help from Russian forces, from Generals to new recruits, is massively involved in what their Commander, General X (anonymity requested) explained in great detail to this observer. His exact words, repeated more than once were, “Repair the Infrastructure, Infrastructure, Infrastructure those are our orders!” which as dear reader is likely aware was very heavily damaged. Most roads, including the main 160 km Homs to Palmyra highway appear now to be in good shape. During its eight month occupation of the area, ISIS blew up large stretches of the highways leading from Palmyra heading west to Homs for about 10 km. One expert pointed to the distant desert hills above the highway and explained to this observer: “One terrorist with medium sized artillery or even a 50 mm gun mounted on the back of a small pickup can close the highway and keep it closed. They did this by hiding and living in holes and tunnels and they came out mainly to fire on any vehicle using the highway and thus they largely prevented its use.” As dear reader may recall even as late as April-May the Syrian army fought ISIS along a ten km stretch of the main Palmyra Homs highway.

Water, electricity, rubble removal, garbage collection, helping returning residents, sympathetically answering their anguished questions (about 20-30 residents are returning every week these days) who fled to Homs and to make their houses safe and explosive free, also mediating on occasion civil disputes are some of the current roles of the Army, not to mention checking structural damage to the home of returnees.

On 6/22/2016, the first and only “supermarket” as it is called locally (frankly it’s not quite what some of us might think of as a supermarket…..only one room street level/opening probably 18 ft. x 30 ft., but it sells lots of basics-some piled high) flour, eggs, baby milk powder, tinned vegetables, coffee, tea, plenty of fresh just picked fruits and vegetables and plenty more formerly hard to come goods.

With the cooperation of the Syrian army, Russian soldiers have opened a bakery and they distribute free bread to all who need it.

Soldiers from the Syrian and Russian armies, and this American were also at the “grand’ opening to help celebrate and the Russian “Kids” (as some here refer to the rather young Russian troops) bought plenty of Turkish EVES beer and Extra Strong (9% alcohol-someone told me) Turkish beer. All arriving from Turkey via Lebanon, I was advised given current political Syria-Turkey tensions. The army also guards Palmyra’s sole supermarket 24/7.

Surely dear reader must be thinking: “Well Lamb, some of your assertions might be interesting but of what possible relevance or probity have they to do with criminals, including some Syrian and Russian soldiers looting the archeological sites?

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Photo: fplamb 6/22/2016. The Syrian Army donated empty ammunition boxes and much more, including troops labor, during clean-up at scores of locations in Palmyra, notably at the National Museum.

As I once told a judge back in the 1990’s when trying to convince him of the righteousness of my bench argument, as I whispered: “Your honor, this is where I need your help a bit to carry my burden of proof.” His honor just glared at me and gave me zero understanding and ruled against my carefully constructed motion!

But my summary conclusion regarding the charges leveled against the current defenders of Palmyra is this. Over the past few years traveling around Syria examining Syria’s Endangered Heritage I have met many regular citizens and almost as many Syrian soldiers. Coming many times from Lebanon via the Mazaa border crossing to Damascus many of the ‘checkpoint guys’ now know about this American who seems to arrive often in Syria. Frequently we chat and get to know one another, and the same has been the case around Syria. Syrian soldiers are just like all the Syrians in most respects, including their love of their country and its cultural heritage. Of course some might steal and secret a small artifact and try to sell it. I have witnessed a little of this from, for example, one lady who found a small object of some kind while digging in her family garden and offered for sale to a foreigner for desperately needed money to feed her three precious children. The foreigner declined the sale offer but gave her most of what cash he had on him at the time.

But with those at Palmyra I very much doubt any looting is currently going on and the reasons include the fact that out here in the desert surrounding Palmyra, working and sleeping among the ruins, often in the company of archeologists and other experts, I would argue that Syria’s military has even deepened their familial connection with their heritage. They seem to possess an ‘‘esprit de coeur” with their cultural heritage which surrounds us here in Palmyra.

They are also somehow like new bright students specializing in an Archeology program. Experts here teach them a lot on the sites, give them information and much of the history of the sites and I dear reader I argue that the soldiers have become passionate about protecting our shared cultural heritage – as much as – if not more than the general public. They have fought and died to protect and preserve it and now they want to help prepare it for the coming restoration work.

Maybe it was too many hours this week in the heat and strong desert sun, but this observer has fantasized that if I somehow had many scholarships to hand out for people to study archeology, not only would there be plenty of takers among the ranks around here, but I believe many in Syria’s army now guarding Palmyra would be stellar students.

The Syrian army’s work and devotion to protect our shared cultural heritage might be cultural, congenital, or genetic. But it’s real.

It is my submission that the current culture here in Palmyra, and the security posted throughout the area, render it very unlikely that looting has been committed here by Syrian or Russian forces.

I have no doubt whatsoever that scholar Herr Dr. Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, is a man of goodwill and fairness. For that reason I invite him to join me in Palmyra and perhaps bring a delegation of archeologists with him and conduct his own investigation. Palmyra is now secured. It would be an honor and pleasure to meet and learn from him.

Until then and based on my own investigation of what has been happening at Palmyra since its liberation last March, I must strongly aver that with respects to accusations targeting Syrian and Russian troops for looting Palmyra, CASE NOT PROVEN.

More articles by:

Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.

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